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Removal of the Squamish Spit begins

For kiteboarders, it's the end of an era. For conservationists and the Squamish Nation, it's a way to give local salmon a second chance.

After a long, controversial process that drew accolades from conservationists and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation)  while, at the same time, drawing criticism from windsports advocates and some recreationists, work on dismantling the Spit has finally begun.

On Jan. 25, the Squamish River Watershed Society, or SRWS, announced they secured the Water Sustainability Act permit, which was the last approval needed to start dismantling the structure.

The berm has been hailed by locals as a world-class windsports destination and a pleasant place to take a hike or walk a dog. However, conservationists found that since its creation in the 1970s, salmon numbers in the area have decreased significantly.

The reason is that the Spit cuts the mouth of the Squamish River off from the estuary, which is traditionally the place where juvenile salmon need to grow strong enough to acclimate to the saltwater of the ocean.

Instead, the berm has been funnelling premature salmon out into the ocean before they have grown strong enough to have a fighting chance, killing off many of them.

On a sunny Jan. 27, Edith Tobe, the executive director of the SRWS, was all smiles as she overlooked the work being done by crews from Whistler Excavations Ltd., which had been contracted for the job.

Workers were grading Spit Road, which generally isn't maintained during the winter, so heavy machinery and trucks could pass through.

Excavators were on site, rumbling down the road, and dump tracks rattled through the dirt track.

Tobe said she was happy to see the work is finally occurring.

It has been a long, turbulent process towards approval.

Squamish Windsports Society members had expressed disappointment that the original plan to realign, rather than remove the Spit, had not come to fruition. However, the watershed society said that after further study, they found it was not a feasible option for this project.

"We're just relieved to get started. We're still within our window," said Tobe.

"We've got a tight little window before the herring start to come and they start to spawn, but we're pretty confident we'll be wrapped up before that occurs."

The herring, she said, are due to come in between late February and March.

The Spit removal is expected to help their populations too, as the fish prefer to spawn in areas of brackish water filled with marine plants, Tobe added. Spawning on rocky areas like the Spit leads to deaths when the tide gets low and exposes the eggs to air. On the other hand, marine plants tend to move up and down with the tides, reducing this problem.

At the time of interview, crews were installing riprap to provide erosion protection for what will soon become the launching island.

As of the week of Jan. 31,  crews will start removing the southernmost section of Spit Road. This will ultimately total to about 300 metres of removed berm. If the 300-metre removal does not affect the nearby port, crews will remove an additional 600 metres of berm.

The 600-metre removal project will require an approval process similar to this current job, but Tobe said she expects it will be much faster this time around, as all the requisite studies have already been done.

For the current project, excavators will generally be removing parts of the berm each night. That's because evenings are when the tides tend to be lowest, and Tobe said it's easiest to do the work during those periods.

Then, during the day, the dirt that was dug up will be trucked over to the former BC Rail Yards, where it will be used by local businesses in need of fill.

"It's going to follow the tidal cycle, so tidal cycles change day to day," she said.

"At nighttime, they'll be digging and stockpiling somewhere along the road here, not far from where they're digging out. That gives the material a chance to drain…So we'll get some operators that are working through the night and the truckers will be trucking it through the day."

Tobe noted that the fact some folks in the community have been upset about the work has led the project team to install security cameras and a security trailer on site.

People will not be allowed to go past a temporarily erected security fence.

Patricia Heintzman, a spokesperson for the society, said that the group is working to set up a ceremony with the  Nation, to mark the beginning of the project.

The founder of the SRWS, Randall Lewis, a Nation member, has previously said that the removal of the Spit is a necessary act of reconciliation with the Nation, which relies on the salmon that were endangered by the berm's creation.

Tobe added that the society is spearheading the funding for the Spit's removal, but the project is a partnership between itself, the Nation, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO.


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